Sunday, 18 October 2009


Marlene Dumas explores many fundamental themes of human existence—including racial and cultural identity, birth, death, and sex.

Born in Cape Town, South Africa, in 1953, Dumas earned her bachelor’s degree in visual arts at the University of Cape Town in 1975, moving to Amsterdam in 1976 to pursue further studies. She attended Ateliers ’63 in Haarlem (now de Ateliers in Amsterdam) through 1978 and has lived and worked in Amsterdam ever since. Dumas’s graphic, sometimes disturbing imagery has colored the general reception of her oeuvre, but her work ultimately has as much to do with the acts of looking, seeing, and responding as with her particular rendering of subject matter. The artist almost exclusively uses photographic source material, drawing from Polaroid photographs, personal snapshots, and thousands of media images that she has collected in her ever-evolving image bank. For Dumas, these images are merely starting points; as she has stated, “You can’t TAKE a painting—you MAKE a painting.” A Dumas painting is never a literal rendition of a photographic source, nor is the material source of a painting the same as its psychological subject matter. Rather, as part of her practice, the artist focuses on the inherent differences between photography and painting—what she has described as “the essential immorality or indifference” of a photographic image when it is removed from its original context or stripped of its identifying information. To this end, while Dumas clearly renders her subjects, she often abstracts their contexts or situations so that a work’s meaning is waiting, suspended, or even lost, depending on the viewer, who must bring his or her own assumptions to its interpretation. The ambiguity of representation in her paintings and drawings is ultimately a political act, enticing the viewer into an awareness of his or her role in the assignation of meaning to faces, bodies, groups, and figures.

The multiple readings that are suggested but never confirmed by Dumas’s compositions are perhaps the aspect most common to her work. Her earliest mature group of paintings—a series of portraits, many of family and friends, made during the 1980s—includes The White Disease (1985) and Albino (1986), which, as their titles suggest, are nuanced depictions of skin color. Dumas’s explicit treatment of women’s bodies in portraits such as Miss Pompadour (1999) and Leather Boots (2000) addresses the complexity inherent in sexual identity and representation. The portrait series Man Kind (2002–06) depicts men of Middle Eastern descent; some of their identities are known (artist, terrorist, leader), though some are not, labeled anonymously with titles such as The Believer (2005) or The Pilgrim (2006). In part, each of these works comments on the ways in which the proliferation of mass-media images—the photographs broadcast on television or reproduced in newspapers—can obliterate one’s sense of another’s individual identity. As exhibition curator Connie Butler observed of Dumas’s most recent painting Dead Marilyn (2008), based on a post-mortem photograph of Marilyn Monroe, “Certainly part of why this image of Monroe dead is so incomprehensible is precisely because in death one is permitted to see what was denied during her lifetime; her face assumes a peaceful expression,
hair straight and flat, flaws unconcealed by makeup—a break from the carefully crafted image of beauty and desirability.”

Dumas is also a prolific author, regularly commenting on her own work in short texts and prose poems and writing extensively about her experiences as an artist—in particular as that role pertains to her own upbringing, politics, gender, and creative milieu. (Marlene DUmas, Measuring your own grave, MOCA Grand Avenue exhibition, Gallery Guide)


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